Can Vols handle success?

You won't find better coverage of Vol hoops anywhere that right here at InsideTennessee. Check out our free preview of this evening's key SEC game.

Tennessee may be facing a "trap game" tonight.

Never thought you'd read those words in connection with the 2011-12 Vols, did you?

Regardless, Big Orange fans recognize the warning signs: Tennessee's players achieve a little success, let it go to their heads, then unravel.

It happened a year ago, when the 2010-11 Vols won at No. 7 Pittsburgh to cap a 7-0 start. Faster than you can say, "This team has got it together," Tennessee suffered consecutive upset losses to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern Cal.

It happened again earlier this season. The Vols strung together a modest four-game winning streak, got a little cocky, then went to Memphis and suffered a 69-51 humiliation.

Tennessee could be primed for a similar letdown tonight. The Big Orange is riding an emotional high, thanks to a three-game winning streak capped by a huge upset of No. 8 Florida last Saturday in Gainesville. Given that visiting Arkansas is carrying an 0-7 road record, the Vols actually could be a bit overconfident tonight.

Not a chance, says senior wing Cameron Tatum.

"The difference is that this team has a better mindset going into the latter part of this season," he said. "Guys understand their roles, guys understand what it takes to win. I think everybody's doing a good job of sticking to the script."

As the only senior playing major minutes, Tatum sets the tone for the younger Vols. He vows to do everything possible to help his teammates avoid a mental lapse like the one they suffered at Memphis.

"I've got to lead," he said. "I think I've done a pretty good job of leading but I've got to be more consistent, lead by example. There's not really much I can say at this point in the season if guys don't understand it yet."

Junior center Kenny Hall says the key to consistently playing well is consistently practicing well.

"It all starts in practice," he said. "I've got to step up as a leader and keep everybody's energy at a certain level — not just for Arkansas but for every game the rest of the season."

Pegged 11th among 12 SEC teams in preseason polls, the Big Orange has played with a chip on its shoulder all season. Asked if the players still have an us-against-the-world mentality, junior guard Skylar McBee nodded.

"I think so," he said. "People look at us as a team with a first-year coach in the SEC and a bunch of guys that hadn't played a lot of minutes before this season, so people are automatically going to put you in the underdog role. But as long as you play the same way all the time — go out and give 100 percent — it don't really matter what role you're put in."

Sophomore point guard Trae Golden believes the main focus tonight is for the Vols to forget about the Florida outcome, the three-game winning streak and the prospect of a post-season tournament bid.

"You just approach the game like every other game: Go in ready to play defense and ready to execute offensively," he said. "Don't buy into anything. Just play our game, and I think we'll be fine."

Head coach Cuonzo Martin is the ultimate example of the even-keel approach. Predictably, he hasn't let the team's recent success go to his head.

"For me as a coach, our approach is the same," he said. "I don't walk into practice with a tuxedo on or anything like that. My approach is still the same — a hard hat and let's get to work."

NOTES: Tennessee is 13-12 and Arkansas 17-8 overall heading into tonight's game. Each team is 5-5 in SEC play.... Tennessee leads the all-time series 16-13, including a 7-2 advantage in games played at Knoxville.... Arkansas is getting killed on the boards in SEC play, being outrebounded by an average of 8.4 per game. The Hogs are superb on defense, however, leading the SEC in 3-point field goal defense (26.3 percent), steals (9.3 per game) and turnover margin (plus 4.0 per game).... The Razorbacks are expected to start a lineup of 6-foot-9, 216-pound Marvell Waithe (5.7 points per game), 6-foot-8, 255-pound DeVonta Abron (5.7 ppg), 6-foot-3, 202-pound Scott Rickey (9.7 ppg), 6-foot-2, 175-pound Mardracus Wade (10.8 ppg) and 6-foot-1, 174-pound Julysses Nobles (9.0 ppg).... Tonight's game has an 8 o'clock tipoff and will be televised by the SEC Network.

Kenny Hall

Inside Tennessee Top Stories